Editor in Chief Patrick Meader responds to a reader letter about his last column.
I often find myself squirming when I hear people toss around racial, cultural, and other stereotypes. For example, the debates on outsourcing often turn in an uncomfortable direction, and focus on the alleged qualities of the people who live in a given locale, rather than on the pluses and minuses of outsourcing. At VSM
, we routinely edit Letters to the Editor that stray into cultural or racial attacks.
Similarly, we're accustomed to seeing letters from C and C# programmers decrying the skills and grooming habits of VB programmers, and vice versa. We at the magazine know that important work occurs by practitioners of these and other languages, and we think it is counterproductive to all programmers to promote these language stereotypes.
Given that we make an effort to be culturally sensitive, imagine my surprise at a reader calling me out for transgressing good taste in my most recent Editor's Note [VSM September 2007].
Wrote David McDonough:
My comment is not about the redesign, but some insensitive language in the "Editor's Note."
It's bad form to disparage any cultural or ethnic group. Yet that is exactly what the editor did when he wrote: "I'm a Philistine when it comes to design." I don't expect the Philistines (also known as Palestinians) who read your magazine appreciate the racial stereotype.
The first question I asked myself was: Does David have a legitimate point, or is this an example of political correctness gone amok? I wouldn't have expected to offend any Philistines when I wrote this because, to my knowledge, there weren't any. After receiving David's letter, I spent the better part of a day trying to determine whether he was correct. The truth is, I can't say one way or the other at this time.
The Dictionary.com reference on Philistines says this in a sidebar: "Though the Philistines have long since disappeared, their name has lived on in the Hebrew Scriptures."
And an article in the Seattle Times on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ["Two Peoples, One Land; Understanding the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict," Sunday May 12th, 2002 included a sidebar with this text: "The word Philistine is the etymological predecessor of the word Palestine. However, the modern-day Palestinians do not claim a cultural or hereditary connection to the Philistines--the tie between the two peoples is in name only." Similarly, the Wikipedia entry on Philistine includes this text: "However, Ezekiel 25:16, Zechariah 9:6, and I Macabees 3 make mention of the Philistines, indicating that they still existed as a people in some capacity after the Babylonian invasion. Eventually all traces of the Philistines as a people or ethnic group disappear." In other words, on the basis of these references, the present-day people of Palestine are not the direct descendents of the Philistines, nor to be considered one and the same.
At the same time, it is clear from the research I did that the words Palestine and Philistine have similar etymology, and refer to the same general area. None of the references I've looked up are reliable enough for me to rule out the possibility that present-day Palestinians and the Philistines of historical record should be considered equivalent, although the preponderance of information I can find seems to indicate otherwise.
In any case, I want to make it clear that I intended no offense to Palestinians nor to anyone else; I was ignorant of the connection David alleges. That said, it was an error in judgment on my part to use the word Philistine in the context I did. I was relying on a stereotype as shorthand--I'm quite aware of the fact that the Philistines had a significant cultural heritage, despite the meaning commonly associated with the word. I knew this when I wrote my editorial, but I relied on this stereotype to make my argument anyway. I will be more careful about making such generalizations in the future.
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Patrick Meader is editor in chief of Visual Studio Magazine.